At Holdsworth, we believe creating a leadership definition is an essential foundation for developing great leaders at all levels of a school district – or any organization.
When trying to improve existing leadership development systems – or build them from scratch – the leadership definition is a game changer.
The end product is what you’d expect from the name – a comprehensive set of the qualities and behaviors that define great leadership. But it’s the process of creating the definition in a collaborative way, allowing it to shape the way employees operate and using it to create coherent systems that makes a deep and lasting impact.
When trying to improve existing leadership development systems – or build them from scratch – the leadership definition is a game changer for three reasons:
- Builds ownership – When key stakeholders in the organization feel they have a voice in deciding what the district values, they won’t just go along with change, they’ll drive it.
- Shapes culture – If every employee can see themselves in the leadership definition, they will use it to guide their everyday actions and help build a more positive and self-empowering culture.
- Aligns talent systems – When the way a district identifies up and-coming leaders, designs growth opportunities and chooses people for leadership roles makes sense to everyone, the field is cleared for people to grow in incredible ways.
While the end product of a leadership definition is essential, the process of creating it is just as important.
“When we first start, people assume it can be done in three to six weeks. But it’s really three to six months, and the difference is the way you engage people,” said Lindsay Whorton, president of The Holdsworth Center.
District leaders begin with a listening tour, collecting thoughts on what it means to be a good leader from as many groups as possible – school nurses, custodians, teachers, principals and more. Then they mine those insights to come up with a definition that everyone will feel invested in because they had a chance to contribute to it.
“This process models an approach to engaging stakeholders in a way that builds ownership,” Whorton said.
Using a similar process can be helpful when leaders begin driving change or navigating major challenges within their district.
That’s exactly what happened in Spring ISD in Fall 2020. When it was time to figure out how to re-open schools safely after pandemic-induced closures, district leaders asked campus leaders to drive the decision-making process rather than issuing directives from the top.
When the group presented their re-opening plan to the board of trustees, Superintendent Rodney Watson could see the pride in their work: “It was their plan. They were confident, intentional, and passionate. It was the beginning of a cultural shift.”
One of the most powerful aspects of having a common leadership definition is its ability to shape culture and help everyone grow no matter where they are on their career path.
“Leadership can be demonstrated from every job and role,” Whorton said. “The starting point for everyone is to ask, ‘What does it look like to demonstrate these behaviors articulated in the leadership definition in my current job?’”
Once a leadership definition is in place, district leaders must work to communicate it so clearly – and frequently – that it permeates the district and shapes or deepens the culture. They must also ensure they’re modeling the leadership behaviors they seek in others.
Leadership can be demonstrated from every job and role.
“If you write it on a piece of paper and it sits on a shelf, it doesn’t mean anything,” Whorton said. “How do you engage people around that definition so that it is widely known, widely understood and put into use?”
In many districts, leaders use it as a centerpiece of convocations and as a touchstone in meetings. They cite the characteristics of leadership when recognizing employees for great work and refer to it in coaching conversations.
In Lockhart ISD, elementary students even recite a pledge that incorporates the district’s leadership definition – they are Locked on Excellence, have a LockHeart for People and are focused on UnLocking Potential in themselves and others.
As everyone in the school community begins to understand clearly what the district values and sees evidence that leaders are “walking the walk,” trust will rise, and a more positive culture will take hold.
“Our employee engagement survey shows the highest ratings we’ve ever seen, especially regarding trust in leadership to do the right thing, and teacher turnover is the lowest its been in the past several years,” said Lockhart ISD Superintendent Mark Estrada. “Our leadership definition has manifested into something much bigger than I ever expected. It’s not just how we define the skills and traits of leaders. It is the written explanation and modeling of what we value as an organization.”
Aligning to one leadership definition
In addition to impacting culture, the leadership definition helps align thinking about what makes a good leader and brings an organization’s various ways of operating into harmony.
Every organization sets up different systems for identifying up-and-coming leaders, growing them, and selecting people for leadership roles.
“If those systems are not aligned to a common leadership definition, they could be working against each other,” Whorton said. “When we look at places that do a fantastic job of people development—both in education, like Gwinnett County Public Schools and in other sectors and industries, from the San Antonio Spurs to the U.S. Army — we see all systems marching toward the same destination.”
Before systems can align, people must first agree on what makes a good leader. Without a common definition, this can be very subjective.
A good leader can be boisterous or reserved. Quick to decide or more deliberate. Different styles abound. But when looking for leadership potential in others, people tend to gravitate toward the style they’re used to, overlooking those who may not fit the bill.
“As we started to engage with Holdsworth, we realized we were using a lot of subjectivity in our leadership identification,” said David Vroonland, retired superintendent of Mesquite ISD. His district joined the 5-year Holdsworth Partnership in 2019.
“In my case, I was looking for people like me, who are really upfront and open with their ideas,” Vroonland said. “There are some significant leaders who are quiet and more reflective, and I wasn’t seeing those folks.”
Mesquite ISD created a leadership definition called Leading through Ownership to spell out – in clear, objective terms – the qualities of a great leader.
“We now use our leadership definition to gauge candidates through their behaviors and evidence of impact. Wow, what a difference,” said Angel Rivera, superintendent of Mesquite ISD.
For people interested in moving into new roles, the leadership definition should operate like a roadmap that’s aligned at all points along the journey, Whorton said.
For instance, an aspiring leader and their mentor might look at the leadership definition together and talk about areas for growth. Then they would identify job-embedded stretch opportunities, or an internal prep program to join. Once the candidate is deemed ready and starts interviewing for jobs, the things the committee is looking for should be the same things articulated in the leadership definition.
“It demystifies what often feels like a black box process in which candidates either get the job or don’t, but don’t usually know why and don’t know how to focus their growth and development moving forward,” Whorton said.
An example of an aligned process is the recent hire of Priscilla Alfaro as principal of Wagner High School in Judson ISD.
Last year, Alfaro was part of a pilot program to help assistant principals prepare for the principalship. While participating in the program, Alfaro identified an area for growth – creating and articulating a vision for her campus. With the help of a mentor, she made it the subject of her capstone project.
When the job of principal at Wagner opened up later that year, the performance task for the interview was to create and articulate a vision for Wagner.
Alfaro nailed the test and got the job.
A unifying experience
Leaders at school districts who have created a leadership definition through Holdsworth have called it a unifying experience – and yes, a game changer for their district.
It was well worth the time to develop, and it is a tool that reaches all levels of staff in the organization.
At Lamar CISD, Chief Financial Officer Jill Ludwig says that the leadership definition is still in use and making an impact four years after her district joined the Holdsworth Partnership.
“It was well worth the time to develop, and it is a tool that reaches all levels of staff in the organization,” she said.